NHL Hockey

Streaking Avs host healthy Wild

The Minnesota Wild sit in the middle of the Central Division standings at the midway point of the season, but it's not a bad place to be for the squad.

Minnesota has been dealing with injuries all season, but with Nino Niederreiter back after missing five games with a lower-body injury the Wild are completely healthy. Niederreiter made a dramatic return, too, recording his second career hat trick in a 6-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.

With Zach Parise making his season debut on Tuesday, there is a glut of forwards for coach Bruce Boudreau to pick from, and Thursday Chris Stewart was the healthy scratch.

That doesn't mean that will be the way it is going forward. Stewart could be back in the lineup when Minnesota plays the Colorado Avalanche in Denver on Saturday night. It's the second of four meetings between the division foes, with the Wild winning in a shootout on Nov. 24.

Boudreau will most likely make a decision on who's in and out after Saturday's morning skate.

"We know there are 13 good forwards in here, and that's a good thing for us," Tyler Ennis told The St. Paul Pioneer Press. "It's fun to be a part of a team that has that many good players."

The Wild (22-16-3) are facing a Colorado team brimming with confidence despite some significant injuries. Top goaltender Semyon Varlamov will miss his second straight game with a lower-body injury that forced him to leave Tuesday's win over Winnipeg.

Backup Jonathan Bernier has filled in well, including getting his 16th career shutout and second of the season in Thursday's 2-0 win over Columbus.

Center J.T. Compher (upper-body) is day to day and won't play, and defenseman Tyson Barrie is out a few more weeks with a broken bone in his right hand.

Even with the injuries, the Avalanche are riding a season-high four-game winning streak. In fact, it's the first time Colorado has won four in a row since Jan. 18-23, 2016. The Avalanche (21-16-3) are one win from matching last year's total, and their 45 points are just three fewer than last season.

"It's a totally different situation now. The team is feeling good, I think every guy is feeling good about themselves," Mikko Rantanen, who had a goal and an assist Thursday, said after the game. "Bernie played a great game so it's looking good for us. There's a lot of games left so we can't get too comfortable right now."

A win over Minnesota -- on the night the team is retiring Milan Hejduk's No. 23 sweater -- would give Colorado a 5-1 homestand and a good feeling heading into its bye week. But the Wild have dominated the matchup since rallying to beat Colorado in seven games in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.

In the last three-plus seasons, the Avalanche are 4-12-1 against the Wild. But with the recent revival, they might be ready to turn around their fortunes and make a run at the postseason. The Wild are in the second wild card in the Western Conference heading into Friday's games, with the Avalanche two points behind.

"It's a big divisional game," Colorado coach Jared Bednar told HockeyBuzz.com. "We're right there with them, so it's a big two points and we want to keep this thing going. We want the passion and the emotion in the game for us. I think it's a good thing. It's one of those measuring stick games. They're back to full strength and we're a little beat up now, but it's a game on home ice, we have a chance to keep this thing going and go into the break on a high note."

Updated January 6, 2018

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